Emmanuel Petit fears Euro 2016 finals may be marred by violence

Former World Cup winner and Arsenal star unnerved by last year’s horrific attacks in Paris

French World Cup and European Championship winner Emmanuel Petit says he fears this summer's tournament in his home country may be marred by violence.

He believes the finals are bound to be at least affected by the threat of it with the spirit of national unity generated by the footballing triumphs of 1998 and 2000 apparently lost during the years since.

“They are beautiful stadiums,” he says when asked if the tournament will be a success. But it will depend on the security. You are living in Ireland and your history is based on political troubles in the past, you don’t have the same problems that we have in France, especially in Paris.

“When I leave home every morning to bring my kids to school, I say hello to the army guys all the time. It’s quite different as we’re not used to living with that threat, we thought for years that we were living with perfect security but it’s quite difficult to explain.

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“You know when you live with the fears and you are sometimes scared. But you cannot touch it, it is invisible. It can happen anywhere, anytime, this is the most frustrating and scary thing. Nothing but threats. It’s just like a shark, if you swim in the water you don’t know where it comes from. It’s the same in France. We try to forget it, but it’s in the back of our mind all the time.”

Deeply affected

Petit, who was in Dublin to publicise a

Carlsberg

Euro 2016 promotion involving 1,100 tickets for Ireland games (see facebook.com/Carlsberg) has been deeply affected by the attacks of last year.

"The first one (at Charlie Hebdo), in January," he says, "I brought my kids to school, which is 300 metres from where it happened and I was having a meeting at home with some people and received phone calls. There is no word to explain what I felt.

“But then when it happened again . . . what happened at the Bataclan, which is not far away either was very scary and I remember the days following that, people were so scared in the street. As soon as they noticed special things, they were screaming in the street. I hope everything is going to be fine for the European tournament and I really think that it will be like this but it is still very, very close in our mind.”

Petit touched on a wide range of topics including the current situation at Arsenal, his regret at not having joined Manchester United from Barcelona when he had the chance to (Alex Ferguson phoned him twice in the hope of signing him, he says) and what he described as France's "shame" over the way the national team qualified for the 2010 World Cup (the Henry handball) as well as the behaviour of some of the players since. But the current tensions within his country clearly concern him most.

Reuniting people

“We missed the turning point after the World Cup in 1998,” he says. “Sport is magical in terms of reuniting people but it can disappear easily for politics or religious or social reasons. And this is our limit in sport. We can help people to dream day by day by making the country proud. But we cannot change people’s lives.

“When you look at the France history, it is based on mixed cities, people come from different countries, different nationalities, this is our people in France. The way we won the World Cup in 1998, it was a perfect reflection of us of France.

“We were just a few but we were French. This is my country for ages.

“I’m very scared about security actually but I’m very scared about the racism; it’s coming back very, very fast and very quickly.”

Another success for the home side this year could, perhaps, help to bring people together once more but he is sceptical about the team’s chances despite their very favourable draw.

“There will be a huge pressure on the French players,” he says, “especially after what happened last year in Paris, in terms of security.

“But all the things – social things, politics – have been mixed with the national team and it’s becoming very difficult to see how far we can go because of this pressure.”

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone is Industry and Employment Correspondent at The Irish Times